Thursday, December 20, 2018

The SP 4-8-2 from Athearn

The Athearn Genesis model of the Southern Pacific 4-8-2 Mountain-type locomotive is not new (they have been sold out at Athearn for years), and I have owned two of them for some time. Before doing a commentary, however (I can’t call it a review at this late date!), I have been waiting until I had a chance to finish weathering the model and give it a thorough operating test. That’s now been done.
     I was intrigued when Athearn first released this locomotive in HO scale, because it is such a distinctive and handsome example of Southern Pacific steam power. Also, I’m pretty familiar with the type because I helped Bob Church edit and lay out his revised edition of the landmark book, The 4300 4-8-2’s, Southern Pacific’s Mt-Class Locomotives (Revised Edition), Signature Press, Wilton, CA, 1996.
     Like most steam locomotives on most railroads, the Mt classes underwent many changes in their lifetimes, some subtle, others quite dramatic. Any model manufacturer has to consider such history and choose which one(s) to build.
     That is certainly true for the SP Mountains. They were built without skyline casings, but that design feature was a success on the GS-class 4-8-4s, so it began to be added to the Mountains in 1939. Most engines received casings by the end of 1942 (58 of the 84 engines), with all the rest getting them by 1950. Shown below is an image of an as-built engine, while on display in Salem, Oregon (photo courtesy Bob Church). This is SP 4345, last engine of Class Mt-3.

You can see here the prominent as-built features: no skyline casing and a 12,000 gallon tender of Class 120-C-6. The indicator boards are at the front of the boiler, and the headlight is the original 18-inch “Sacramento Shops” design. All drivers are spoked, the engine has alligator crossheads, and the boiler front is the same graphite color as the smoke box.
     In addition to the skyline casing additions that started in 1939, SP also decided to move the indicator boards back to mid-boiler for better visibility, starting in 1943, and this change was made to all the engines fairly quickly. About the same time, aluminum-painted smokebox fronts became standard, and most locomotives had received visored Pyle headlights instead of their “Sacramento” originals. Here is an example, SP 4311 at San Francisco in 1949 (Doug Richter photo, Bob Church collection)

     This locomotive still has all spoked drivers, and still has its alligator crossheads, as well as a 12,000-gallon tender, though starting with the Mt-4 class, many received instead the new-design 16,000-gallon tender. This engine also has a corrugated-steel pilot, something installed whenever the original boiler-tube pilots got damaged or destroyed, but many engines kept the original pilots.
     After the immediate post-war period, another change began to be made. Some locomotives developed cracks in the spokes of the main driver (the second driver from the front, where the main rod is connected), and these were replaced with disk drivers. Many engines, however, were never so upgraded by the end of their lives.
     That brings us to the model I own, lettered as SP 4349. Shown below is a photo of the prototype engine at Gerber, California on October 30, 1949 (Alan Aske photo, Bob Church collection). It has the features shown above on SP 4311, but has a front-end throttle (as did the entire Mt-4 and -5 classes). Like many Mt engines after 1945, it has received multiple-bearing crossheads in place of the original alligators. It is pretty dirty, suggesting that it may have been due for a shopping, at which times locomotives were often painted.

     My Athearn model faithfully follows everything in this photo: all spoked drivers, skyline casing, 12,000-gallon tender, multiple-bearing crossheads, Pyle headlight, and mid-boiler indicators. This engine, assigned to Shasta Division at the time, does have a snowplow pilot; such pilots were installed or removed, depending on division assignment.
     These examples show vividly how complex are the choices a manufacturer has to make. Athearn made some good ones, in my opinion. First, back in 2008, they offered a version of the original engines, that is, without skyline casing, and with 12,000-gallon tenders (Class 120-C-6), visor-less headlight, front-mounted indicators, and alligator crossheads. In 2010, they announced a skyline-casing version, and also introduced the 16,000-gallon tender (Class 160-C-3). Those features enabled them to offer the much-loved “semi-Daylight” paint scheme, and also to offer black engines with both tenders and both crosshead types. This spans a wide range of time and locomotive features.
     I chose the skyline locomotive with 12,000-gallon tender, in part because I already have an excellent Max Gray brass Mt with a 16,000-gallon tender, and wanted to have both kinds. But because SP routinely swapped tenders of steam locomotives being shopped, a particular engine might have either size of tender applied at any time, because front tender decks were the same height, making them interchangeable.
     Shown below is my model, with some light weathering added. I still need to add a few details, such as crewmen in the cab, water column hook on the tender deck, and so on. I may also add another weathering wash to further soften the original black paint.

     Performance has been quite nice, in multiple test runs with different trains on my layout. I am really happy with this model, and though I recognize it is pretty late in the day for me to do so, I commend Athearn for the fine choices they made in producing these locomotive models.
Tony Thompson


  1. Tony - it is never too late to tell a manufacturer they've done something right. Your voice may be the one they need to hear on that particular day when they may be making a decision about the next loco to produce.

    It is also the time of year for gratitude and good feelings - for which I say Thank You for such a nice blog. I'm not an SP modeler, but I appreciate your thoughts on all sorts of modeling topics. Thanks for a good read. I look forward to your posts in the new year.

  2. I like these Athearn engines and have the same one you do and one of the daylight scheme. So far the only change I had to make was removing the springs over the front drivers because they prevented the traction tire from touching the rail. They will probably be the most used on my layout.